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Cowboys Road To The 2011 NFL Playoffs: Reasons For Optimism

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Over the last few months, we've seen a lot of post-rationalization about the Cowboys 6-10 record last year. We gobbled up all the talk of The Cowboy Way and the Right Kind Of Guys like it was manna from heaven. We collectively found reasons to be optimistic about a draft class whose second and third round picks came from so far out of left field, you would've needed a crystal ball to see them coming. We're still telling each other why the Cowboys free agency performance - in which the players we did not get generated a lot more excitement than the players we did end up signing - was a good thing.

To varying degrees, almost every Cowboys fan will acknowledge that he is perhaps just a little bit more optimistic about the 2011 Cowboys than an objective look at the facts warrants. But that's okay. We're fans. It's our job to be optimistic. But with that optimism also comes an expectation.

At the end of the day, there are no two ways about it: the Cowboys must make the playoffs this year - anything short of that must be considered a disappointment. Sure, should they fail, we'll find ways to post-rationalize that as well. After all, that is also our job as fans.

With that out of the way, in a loosely connected series of posts over the next few days titled "The Cowboys road to the Playoffs" we'll look at a number of different reasons why we can be optimistic about reaching the playoffs. Today, we start with the basest of all reasons: because it's another teams' turn to be bad. In the NFL, we call this parity.

Instead of parity, some people prefer the term mediocrity. It really comes down to your own philosophical preferences what you call it. Fact is, the 'competitive balance' in the league gives each team hope of finishing at the top of the standings regardless of its record the previous season, for three very specific reasons:

The churn factor: By now it's been pretty well established and it's become common knowledge that the playoff field churns by about 50% from year to year. This effectively means that about six teams that did not make the playoffs in 2010 will make the playoffs in 2011. Every year since 1996, at least five out of the 12 playoff teams did not reach the postseason the year before. And only once since the league moved to its current 12-team playoff format in 1992 did that number dip to four teams, in 1994.

The rebound factor: Every year since 1992 there have been a handful of teams that had a losing record in the previous season made the playoffs in the following season. In 2010 the Bears and the Seahawks made the postseason despite a losing record in 2009, and bizarrely in the Seahawks case, despite a losing record in 2010 as well.

Worst-to-first factor: It's not like this reversal of fortune of the rebound factor affects only teams who narrowly missed the playoffs in the previous year. For eight years running, at least one team went from "worst-to-first" in its division. Since 2000, 16 teams have managed that feat. Since 1971, the total number of teams to have gone worst-to-first in their division is 33.

Don't believe it? Below is the full list of the Churn Factor and the Rebound Factor in the playoffs since 1992, and a little further down we have the data for the worst to first teams.

Playoff Participants by Year, 1992-2009
"Churn" Factor
teams that didn't make the
playoffs the year before
"Rebound" Factor
teams with losing records
the year before
Year # Teams Teams # Teams Teams
1992 7 KC, Mia, Min, Phi, Pit, SD, SF 2 Pit, SD
1993 5 Den, Det, GB, NYG, Oak 3 Det, NYG, Oak
1994 5 Chi, Cle, Mia, NE, SD 3 Chi, Cle, NE
1995 4 Atl, Buf, Ind, Phi 3 Atl, Buf, Phi
1996 5 Car, Den, Jac, Min, NE 3 Car, Jac, NE
1997 5 Det, KC, Mia, NYG, TB 3 Det, NYG, TB
1998 5 Ari, Atl, Buf, Dal, NYJ 4 Ari, Atl, Buf, Dal
1999 7 Det, Ind, Sea, StL, TB, Ten, Was 4 Det, Ind, StL, Was
2000 6 Bal, Den, NO, NYG, Oak, Phi 4 Den, NO, NYG, Phi
2001 6 Chi, GB, NE, NYJ, Pit, SF 3 Chi, NE, SF
2002 5 Atl, Cle, Ind, NYG, Ten 5 Atl, Cle, Ind, NYG, Ten
2003 8 Bal, Car, Dal, Den, KC, NE, Sea, StL 5 Bal, Car, Dal, Sea, StL
2004 5 Atl, Min, NYJ, Pit, SD 4 Atl, NYJ, Pit, SD
2005 7 Car, Chi, Cin, Jac, NYG, TB, Was 5 Car, Chi, NYG, TB, Was
2006 7 Bal, Dal, KC, NO, NYJ, Phi, SD 4 Bal, NO, NYJ, Phi
2007 6 GB, Jac, Pit, TB, Ten, Was 2 TB, Was
2008 7 Atl, Ari, Bal, Car, Mia, Min, Phi 4 Atl, Bal, Car, Mia
2009 6 Cin, Dal, GB, NE, NO, NYJ 2 Cin, GB
2010 5 Atl, Chi, KC, Pit, Sea 2 Chi, Sea

The biggest rebound since 1992 was achieved by the 2008 Dolphins, who had compiled a 1-15 record in 2007 and reached the playoffs in 2008 with an 11-5 record. The Cowboys have rebounded into the playoffs two times: 1998 & 2003. Of the 63 teams that rebounded from a losing record into the playoffs since 1992, here's how many wins they racked up in the previous season:

Rebound teams: Wins in season prior to playoff season
Wins 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
# Teams - - 1 - - 3 9 14 17 21

The three 3-win teams in this table to rebound into the playoffs were the '99 Colts as well as the '00 & '06 Saints. But these three teams didn't just rebound into the playoffs, they also went from worst-to-first in their division in the process. Here's the full list of teams that managed that most improbable of turnarounds:

Teams going from "Worst-to-first" in their division by year, 1992-2009
Year Team Record Prior Season Record
1992 San Diego 11-5 4-12
1997 New York Giants 10-5-1 6-10
1999 Saint Louis 13-3 4-12*
1999 Indianapolis 13-3 3-13
2000 New Orleans 10-6 3-13
2001 Chicago 13-3 5-11
2001 New England 11-5 5-11
2003 Carolina 11-5 7-9
2003 Kansas City 13-3 8-8*
2004 Atlanta 11-5 5-11
2004 San Diego 12-4 4-12*
2005 Chicago 11-5 5-11
2005 Tampa Bay 11-5 5-11
2006 Baltimore 13-3 6-10*
2006 New Orleans 10-6 3-13
2006 Philadelphia 10-6 6-10
2007 Tampa Bay 9-7 4-12
2008 Miami 11-5 1-15
2009 New Orleans 13-3 8-8
2010 Kansas City 10-6 4-12
*Tied for last place in division

What all this shows is that anything can happen in the league nowadays. In a new NFL season, the last season doesn't matter. The NFL season will kick off in a month, and 32 teams are going into the season hopeful that this could be their year. Rick Gosselin from the DMN described the situation nicely:

In a parity-driven league, you see it almost every year. A team on no one's radar storms through September unbeaten. It begins thinking it's a good football team, then it starts playing like a good football team and, finally, it becomes a good football team.

There's no reason why the Cowboys couldn't be that team in 2011.